By Harry Gatjens
The Edmonds Strategic Plan continues to move forward and an update was provided on Tuesday at the City Council’s third Strategic Plan retreat.
Tom Beckwith of Beckwith Consulting made a new presentation to the Council and the Strategic Plan Committee updating progress to date and providing more information learned so far. This presentation focused on economic issues facing cities and how they are dealing with them.
Starting with a list of what things are pressuring cities — unfunded mandates from higher governments, lack of revenue growth commensurate with expense growth, deteriorating infrastructure and spiraling costs of health benefits — the presentation then went on to discuss what cities have been doing to deal with the issues.
Unfortunately, the bulk of the remedies are things that reduce the quality of city services, such as delaying maintenance or new capital improvements, reducing programs, cutting staff and using up reserves. None of these strategies lead to an improvement in a city’s quality of life for citizens.
Edmonds has already done a lot to conserve our quality of life, but outward projections show the potential need to make more of the sacrifices such as those listed above. As many have already heard, our street maintenance has begun to suffer for lack of funds.
Our forward-looking economic projections show Edmonds facing severe economic constraints over the next five years. With revenue projected to only grow at 1 percent a year, but expenses projected to grow at a 3.5 percent annual rate, we are only a year or two from eating up our reserves and five years from actually going in the hole.
The question becomes, what to do? Edmonds relies more on property tax revenue than most cities. With a 1-percent cap on increases in property taxes (unless voters approve a higher increase) and a small retail sector, Edmonds is facing a need to slow its expense growth rate. But what do you cut?
Cities are mandated to perform certain functions: public safety, streets, utilities and general administration. They also provide discretionary services: parks, recreation, arts and culture, libraries. So what and how does the city reduce when finances get tight?
A new budgeting concept, Budgeting for Outcomes, is being introduced to the City. This is similar to zero-based budgeting plans where the budget is determined by examining the needs and services provided to the community and allocated scarce dollars by ranking priorities. Unlike current practice, where budgets are determined by taking last year’s numbers and adjusting as needed, this new technique starts from scratch. It looks at what services cities need to provide, and then ranks them in order of priority. Presentations are made on what needs to be done to meet those needs and the associated costs.
The budget is allocated to the services in priority order until the entire budget is exhausted and then any priority below that is not accomplished. This is a very detailed and exhaustive approach to budgeting. Others cities have done it but it used tremendous resources to accomplish and takes several years to implement. However, those cities that have followed through feel that their budget decisions better reflect the needs and desires of the cities and their citizens.
The whole Strategic Plan is designed to help determine the priorities. That is why citizen involvement is so important, so that the citizens have a say in what Edmonds’ priorities should be.
There are two upcoming charrettes — or brainstorming sessions — scheduled, during which you have an opportunity to provide your input on Edmonds’ future direction. One is on March 14 and another on March 19. See our article here on how to get involved.